In late May, Gov. Greg Abbott signed a bill to help veterans exposed to open-air burn pits. It would create a state registry of health and exposure information and use it for outreach purposes. Now, advocates and state officials are wondering how — if at all — they’ll share that information with the Department of Veterans Affairs.
For more than a decade, veterans have been sounding the alarm. They say they’re getting sick with issues that affect all areas of the body: breathing problems, nervous system disorders, skin issues and rare cancers, among others.
While their symptoms are scattershot, sufferers say the common factor is burn pit exposure. That is living or working close to the open-air sites where the military burned trash.
LeRoy Torres, an Iraq War veteran, was first exposed to burn pit smoke in 2007 while stationed at Balad Air Base. The trash site was located about a mile from his sleeping quarters.
“It was like a landfill. A landfill that was ignited,” he said. “Ten acres in diameter ... It was something that no one ever really talked about. We'd ask questions, and nobody would give us an answer."
All kinds of material went into the fire: solvents, metals, munitions, medical waste, fuel and even body parts. Some 250 sites existed in Iraq and Afghanistan — with the largest burning several hundred tons of waste each day. The burning gave off a slew of chemical byproducts, some of which service members touched or inhaled.
Torres remembered driving the main road at Balad, squinting through smoke that smelled like burnt rubber.
“I couldn't even see six feet in front of me,” he said. “That's how thick the cloud of plume smoke was.”
After returning from Iraq, Torres was diagnosed with an incurable lung disease and a toxic brain injury — and he was medically retired from his job.
He and his wife Rosie are the co-founders of Burn Pits 360, a Robstown-based advocacy organization. For the last decade, they’ve fought to get the Department of Veterans Affairs and Congress to study the health effects of burn pits and compensation veterans.
But because so many different materials were burned in so many places, the Defense Department and the VA struggled to link veterans’ health issues to specific sources. Several studies on airborne hazards and pulmonary injuries are underway, including a review of respiratory health effects of airborne hazards in Southwest Asia.
From June 2007 through March 2019, the VA processed 12,378 VA disability compensation claims with at least one condition related to burn pit exposure. But of those, only 2,425 were granted.
Rosie Torres said more has to happen to help veterans like her husband.
"The VA refuses to highlight the issue,” Torres said. “People are dying and losing so much. People are taking their lives because of declines in their health, the loss of jobs, the loss of everything.”
In 2014, VA built a registry to track the health status of veterans exposed to burn pits. But there are federally mandated limits on the types of information it can collect. For instance, veterans can’t report declines in their health over time, and relatives aren’t allowed to enter information on behalf of veterans who are sick.
For Torres, the biggest problem with the national registry is that it doesn’t track mortality.
“They’re not even keeping track of the death entries. All these people who've died — they don't exist,” she said.
The public deserves a more complete record of the toll burn pits have taken, Torres argued, and military families need the closure that comes with reporting a loved one’s death.
“I feel that it's such an important issue, that this be available to them,” she explained. “Not just for scientific purposes and for compensation and benefit purposes but more for the purpose of self, healing and validation of the loss.”
Torres said the cause has received a lot of sympathy from lawmakers on Capitol Hill. But the political will to improve the national registry just isn’t there yet.
Ware Wendell, executive director of the citizen advocacy organization Texas Watch, agrees.
“It’s very difficult in Washington D.C. right now with partisan gridlock, and that's why it was so important for a state like Texas to step up and take care of our veterans here,” Wendell said. “To gather as much information as we can at the state level.”
To address gaps in the federal registry, Burn Pits 360 and Texas Watch lobbied for a statewide burn pit registry that would gather more comprehensive health information. State Rep. Abel Herrero and Sen. Juan Hinojosa championed the legislation.
It requires the Department of State Health Services to establish a registry of service members and veterans who were exposed to burn pit smoke or other airborne hazards during their service in any conflict or theater recognized by the VA.
For each entry in the registry, DSHS would include the service member or veteran's name, address, phone number, electronic address, location and period of military service, medical condition or death that could be related to exposure to open burn pit smoke or other airborne hazards; and other information considered necessary by the VA.
DSHS would then share information in the open burn pit registry with the VA's Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry and would electronically link the state's registry with the federal registry.
State Rep. Abel Herrero issued the following statement about the rationale behind the Texas registry:
“We had heard from Texas veterans that the federal registry was not doing enough, so we took necessary action and created the Texas Open Burn Pit Registry to help address those deficiencies. Texas will go above and beyond to help our service members. Collecting data, veterans tell us, is necessary to find answers and proper medical treatment for them. If the VA does not want to do what is right for Texas veterans, we will lead the charge and do whatever we can for our service members."
Wendell added, “It’s only through gathering that information and analyzing it that we’re going to be able to get our vets the medical help and the attention they need when they need it. They don’t have time for delay.”
The registry will also be used as an outreach tool to let veterans know about changes to the VA’s burn pit claims process.
Officials and advocates are working to get it up and running by September 2019.
Uncertainty About Implementation
However, it’s unclear whether the VA will actually accept and use the health data collected in Texas.
According to an HRO analysis of the bill as passed, “the Texas Health and Human Services Commission could enter a memorandum of understanding with the VA as necessary” to administer provisions.
But when asked whether the VA would accept state-level data for inclusion into the federal registry, VA spokeswoman Ndidi Mojay offered the following statement:
“Federal law governs the type of data collected and method of collection by VA’s burn pit registry. VA cannot merge other data into the Open Burn Pits Registry because of different development methods, survey questions and reference points. VA works closely with Veteran advocate groups to ensure the registry is and will be used in the most effective manner possible.”
But Burn Pits 360 said it’s going ahead anyway — and hopes other states will follow suit — with the goal of forcing action at the federal level.
Carson Frame can be reached at Carson@TPR.org and on Twitter at @carson_frame.